Retailing about service, not product

Retailers can sell anything provided they have the customer experience at the forefront of their operations, a former CEO of Petbarn has told My Business.

Philip Bartholomew, who headed up the pet supplies retail giant between 2004 and 2006 and now operates competing retailer My Pet Warehouse, said his entire career has been about doing whatever is in the best interests of his customer, even if that is not immediately apparent to his bottom line.

“Six months after we opened [our original business The Pet Warehouse in Sydney] in 2001, Petbarn opened up around the corner, and they only had a few stores then – I think 12 stores – and of course, being in my situation, I panicked,” Mr Bartholomew said.

“I thought I could either wither away and die or fight it, so I researched them and did all my homework and some more homework, and focused on our customers and obsessed about customer service.”

This obsession with service, according to Mr Bartholomew, led him to sneak into Petbarn to buy goods if he was out of stock, and to pay customers’ parking fines if incurred while they were in his store. He even followed customers to see if they went into his competitor’s store and, if so, took note of what they purchased.

“From the day they opened, our business actually went up 20 per cent, and about three or four months after they opened, we were actually trading about 40 per cent above where we were,” he said.

“And we did a really good job – six months later, they rang us and said: ‘Are you interested in doing something together? Because we are losing a lot of money there, and you’re doing a great job’.”

After initially knocking back the approach, and expanding his own business to two stores, Mr Bartholomew eventually merged with Petbarn and took over as CEO, before exiting two years later and starting again from scratch.

According to Mr Bartholomew, modern retailers often get caught up in trying to define whether they are physical or online. He said My Pet Warehouse operates 12 stores in four states as well as a national distribution network for online retailing, and actively tries not to separate the two aspects of the business.

“There is – as strange as it sounds – no such thing as online retailing; it’s just retailing,” he explained.

“How you retail is what makes the difference. Whether you are retailing offline or exclusively online, our thinking … is that it’s completely seamless. So it’s a bit like a house renovation, and you’re not quite sure where the old house stops and the new house starts. With retailing, we attempt to blur the lines – not well, yet – but we blur the lines on where a physical store stops and an online store starts.

“If we don’t have something in stock, no problems – why don’t you pay for it now, and we’ll have it shipped to your house free of charge the minute it turns up; no more store transfers. I’m not sending someone to another store to risk losing a sale.”

He added: “We aim to provide that seamless integration, at which point, is it the courier system you’re offering or is it online retailing you’re offering? [Effectively] it’s somewhere in the middle.”

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